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Withnail and I

Film maker Bruce Robinson's much-feted classic Withnail and I mirrored his own poverty-striken experiences in
late Sixties Camden.
By Rachel Ong

 
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Scene from Withnail and I

Thirty-five years ago, Bruce Robinson put pen to paper and created a masterpiece from his down and out experiences in a squalid Camden Town flat. Nobody then, not even Bruce himself, could have predicted Withnail & I’s phenomenal cult status.

Bruce RobinsonCurrently based in Herefordshire, Bruce reminisces, "In those days the London Borough of Camden attracted an altogether different species of resident.

"It was around the winter of 1969/70 that I wrote Withnail. It was a particularly vicious winter and here I was with no heat, an Oxfam overcoat and a lightbulb. I used to swipe abandoned vegetables off Camden Market. There’d always be apples and turnips hanging about when they’d shut up on a Saturday. It was fucking awful.

"In the Sixties one might have spotted a solitary alder, scraping a living up among the chimney pots, but now Albert Street is an advertisement for lush trees and classy door knockers. Everyone’s got a lion’s head, and there’s a lot of wisteria about in the pots hauled back from Carcassonne.

"I used to swipe abandoned vegetables off Camden Market. There’d
always be apples and turnips hanging about when they’d shut up on
a Saturday. It was fucking awful. "

"The pub we used to drink in, The Dublin, had gone. The Communist greengrocer who refused to sell ‘foreign’ had gone. All the Cafs had acquired an e, and everyone in Camden Town was drinking cappuccino."

It might have come as a bit of a shock, but no surprise to Bruce that his former residence had been transformed into an estate agent’s dream as it was "painted now from top to toe, with a triple Banham’d front door in deepest New Labour Blue.

"If you want a house in this street today," he says, "it’s going to cost you more than a million. When I lived here all those winters ago, it cost my landlord less than £8, 000."

At the time, Bruce didn’t exactly fancy himself a writer. Life, however, was imitating art and he found he had some material at his disposal based on his relationship with flatemate, Vivian MacKerrel.

"I didn’t sit there with a tape recorder and a notepad writing down what Viv said," he explains, "I just took his acidity, his pompous cowardice, and his very pungent sense of humour, and wrote that character (Withnail). The ‘I’ character is someone who’s always constantly saving the day – which I did a lot with Vivian."

Their relationship, he says, is "permeated with decay, and at the end the ‘I’ character leaves with some hope but there’s no hope for the other bastard. There’s none. There’s nowhere to go. He hasn’t got anyone to play off. He’s going to spend his life drinking himself to death, which is exactly what Viv did. He died in about 1990. It was throat cancer, the most terrible thing. They’d sewn his throat up and he couldn’t swallow, so he had to spit into this enormous cauldron. He had a pipe coming out of his stomach which he was fed through, and he was pouring neat Scotch straight into it."

By contrast, the inspiration for the actual name Withnail came from someone with a less caustic temperament. "He had a name very similar to Withnail. He was an upper-class n’er do well and he had an Aston Martin. Total alcoholic. The last time I heard of him he got arseholed and backed his Aston out of a pub car park straight into the side of a police car. I was eight, and I thought, ‘This guy’s extraordinary!’" he enthuses. "When I was coming to write Withnail, this name came up in my head. Because I can’t spell, I spelled it Withnail, which is a similar but more appropriate name."

"He had a pipe coming out of his stomach which he was fed through,
and he was pouring neat Scotch straight into it."

 

In 1987, this script went into production - with Bruce in the director’s chair for the first time - and the experience was, in short, a bit of a nightmare.

First of all, casting took longer than expected. Paul McGann was hired and fired twice. "He would not lose that Scouse accent. I kept saying to him, ‘You’ve got to dump it, Paul. You’re meant to be a lower-middle-class boy who’s gone to drama school, and you can’t speak like that.’ I got rid of him then reinstated him because he promised me he’d get rid of it, which he did."

Richard E. Grant was (apparently) too large for the role. Bruce recounts, "He swears that he was never fat, but I’ve got the pictures. When he came along I said, ‘Half of you has got to go.’ He lost all this weight and he’s never put it on again. Richard’s a vicious old tart, and he obviously had the wherewithal to play Withnail other wise he wouldn’t have done it like he did."

Then there was the first day of filming. Denis O’Brien, one of the movie’s producers, nearly shut the operation down. Denis had previously worked with the Monty Python crew and was of the opinion that "all comedy should be brightly lit."Creative differences were eventually subdued by Ray Cooper (Managing Director of HandMade Films) and in the end Denis was more than pleased with the results.

Avid fans of the film will know that the other actors up for the role of Withnail include Daniel Day-Lewis ("He didn’t so much turn it down as time passed and by then he wasn’t available."), Bill Nighy ("He gave a very good account of himself in the auditions, but that was in Bill’s drinking days and I thought that one drunk on the set was going to be enough.") and Kenneth Branagh ("He’s an excellent actor, Branagh, and he could have played Withnail, but it would have been a podgy Withnail. I don’t mean physically, but Ken’s very mannered and I don’t think he’d have had that splenetic depth that Richard’s got.")

When asked about the film’s long lasting appeal, an older and wiser Bruce Robinson muses, "What I think it does do is touch that moment that we’ve all had where we’re all broke, all starving, all aspiring and all knowing that it might not work in our lives. For one of them it does not definitely and for one of them it might." He adds, "I really think audiences love good dialogue. Brilliant photography costs a lot more than crap photography, whereas good dialogue doesn’t cost any more than bad dialogue, so even a cheap film can have great dialogue in it."

"Smoking In Bed: Conversations with Bruce Robinson" edited by Alistair Owen is priced at £7.99 (Bloomsbury Publishing).

To buy Smoking in Bed for just £6.39 from Amazon click here - Buy Smoking in Bed


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